When Andrea Echeverri sat in her window seat on a plane to Haiti last spring break she anticipated what would await her when she landed in the third world country. As she looked out the window she was expecting to see green landscapes and mountains like when she visits her native country of Colombia.
“I [saw] some green going on and all of a sudden we get to this bay-looking area and it just all turned brown, like dirt or sand,” Echeverri, a senior public health major, said. “You just don’t see green anymore and that was really striking to me. I didn’t expect to see the [bigger picture] of what causes that kind of poverty [so soon].”
Immediately seeing the lack of natural resources before even stepping foot on Haitian soil, Echeverri was hit with the reality of why she went to Haiti in the first place — to serve.
Temple Project Haiti, founded a little more than a year ago, is a student organization dedicated to fundraising for the Saint Francis Xavier Orphanage in Petite Place Cazeau, 3 miles away from the capital Port-au-Prince.
Echeverri, president of the organization, and Meredith McDevitt, the vice president, began a chapter of Project Haiti on Main Campus after students from Penn State did a presentation on the organization at the Newman Center — where both students attend mass.
For the first year of Temple Project Haiti’s existence, Echeverri and McDevitt chose to keep the service trip to the two of them. Along with Father Jerry Wild of the Newman Center and Penn State alumnus Mike Greehin, the pair embarked on their journey.
“I was really excited,” Echeverri said. “I was almost overwhelmed with joy to be there because we had been talking about it for the past six months, and we had heard from other people about the country and the situation. I just really couldn’t wait to see the kids, because that’s what the whole point of the group [is].”
The first four days of the trip were spent in the Saint Francis Xavier Orphanage where the group brought suitcases with them filled with clothing, toys, medicine and toiletries. The Kornberg School of Dentistry gave a donation of more than 1,500 toothbrushes, 500 tubes of toothpaste and dental floss.
Although all the donations went to the orphanage, the owner Esperandieu Cenat made sure there was a trickle-down effect throughout the local community.
“Cenat made it very clear the orphanage was part of the community,” Echeverri said. “He shared the donations with two other orphanages in town.”
During the group’s stay in the orphanage, the majority of the time was spent interacting with the children living there. McDevitt recalls the cultural and language barriers that were apparent upon their arrival.
“When people come to Haiti, [the locals] know it’s for a reason — usually service,” McDevitt, a junior painting major, said. “At the beginning of the trip kids would just call me ‘blanc’ and by the end of the trip they called me ‘godmother.’ They speak Creole, and [I noticed they started] calling me something different from ‘blanc’ so I asked the translator what it meant and he said ‘little godmother.’”
Echeverri, who also shared the nickname, “blanc,” said her favorite part of the trip was when the children began opening up.
“When we got there we were some of the first white people the children had seen. There was also an age difference and language barrier,” Echeverri said. “We were all about getting on their level and playing with them. And when [Greehin] started talking to them in Creole they totally came around. They went from [being shy] and staying in their tent, to us playing this huge game of tag that set the [mood] for the rest of the week.”
The rest of the time was spent playing with the children and building rapport, Echeverri added.
“We would talk to them in English and they would make fun of us, mimicking us — you know how kids are — they would say exactly the same thing with no accent at all, and not know what they were saying,” Echeverri said.
Part of their stay in Haiti also involved going to a nutrition center for a day where children are left by their families — but on the condition that the children are visited at least once a week by their parents, unlike an orphanage.
“I was filled with joy from a public health aspect because this is a nutrition center and [the children] were getting powdered milk, regular meals and medicine that they need,” Echeverri said. “The idea is for the kids to get better, so they can return to their families.”
However, Echeverri said one of her biggest concerns with the nutrition center was that since it was at capacity, children were not getting the individual attention they needed.
Both Echeverri and McDevitt cite the time they spent getting to know the children as the most memorable part of the experience, for both the children and themselves.
“I think they had a lot of fun having someone to play with after school,” McDevitt said. “That’s mostly what we did on the trip. Show them that we care. They really enjoy having someone to color with and run around with. They don’t have anyone to play with besides each other so I think they were happy about that.”
“They kind of have a set schedule they follow: They wake up, they eat breakfast, go to school, go home, play around, have an evening lesson, pray at night and go to bed. We got to break their routine,” Echeverri added. “We would walk them to school, and they got to share with us what they do.”
After four days at the orphanage and one in the nutrition center, the group left to meet up with Penn State Project Haiti at an orphanage that the Penn State chapter has helped to establish and maintain.
The time spent with the group from Penn State allowed Echeverri and McDevitt to brainstorm and come up with more ideas for the Temple chapter.
Since returning to the U.S., Temple Project Haiti has grown to have between 20 to 30 active members, with around 10 of those members expressing interest in going to Haiti this upcoming spring break.
For the academic year the group has set a goal of raising $5,000 for the orphanage. Recently the group passed the $1,000 mark — mostly through bake sales and donations.
The group’s fundraising efforts go 100 percent toward the orphanage and none of the money is used to pay for travel to Haiti. All Project Haiti members must pay for plane tickets out of pocket; the group does this to maintain its status as a student organization on Main Campus, since Haiti is on the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warning list.
“We go as individuals, we can’t go as a group,” Echeverri said. “So we can’t say [the trip to Haiti] is part of the group’s purpose. It’s a decision every person has to make on their own.”
Echeverri works as a research assistant on Main Campus to make money to pay for her trip, while McDevit has support from her family and parish.
A fundraising event planned for this semester includes a clothing drive where used clothes will be collected and sorted through to see what can be donated to the children. The clothes that don’t fit the criteria will be resold money will go to the orphanage.
Artists for Haiti will be a silent art auction at which people will be able to bid on student-submitted work. All of the money raised will go directly to the orphanage.
Since the trip last spring, the orphanage has grown to house 18 children, and plans are being made to move into a bigger space that can fit 50 by March.
McDevitt will not be going on the trip in the spring because she will be studying abroad in Rome, but she hopes she can go in the summer by herself to lend a hand to the orphanage, she said.
“It was probably the most moving experience in my entire life,” McDevitt said. “The things you see there will definitely be there in your mind and heart — I know that sounds really cheesy but you can’t forget.”
Luis Fernando Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.